SANTIAGO Thirty-three Chilean miners trapped deep underground sent a message to the surface tied to a drill on Sunday, saying they were all alive in their first contact since a cave-in 17 days ago, but experts said it would take months to dig them out.
President Sebastian Pinera said the paper message was tied to a perforation drill that rescuers used to bore through to the area near an underground shelter, where the miners took shelter after the August 5 collapse at the gold and copper mine in the far north.
"The 33 of us in the shelter are well," read the message written with red paint on the piece of paper that Pinera held up on television.
Around 200 people gathered in a square in the capital Santiago, waving flags to celebrate the news. Drivers honked their horns and diners applauded in restaurants.
"It will take months" to get them out, the beaming president said at the mine head. "It will take time, but it doesn't matter how long it takes to have a happy ending,"
The miners are 4.5 miles inside the winding mine and about 2,300 feet vertically underground. They are inside a mine shaft shelter the size of a small apartment.
Authorities said they had limited amounts of food, and doctors advised sending glucose, enriched mineral water and medicines as well as other foods.
"God is great," 63-year-old Mario Gomez, the eldest of the trapped miners, wrote in a letter to his wife attached to the drill along with the message, which Pinera read on television.
"This company has got to modernize," he added. "But I want to tell everyone I'm OK, and am sure we will survive."
Relatives hugged, kissed and thanked God as news of the message reverberated outside the entrance to the mine, where they have camped out since the mine caved in on August 5.
'NEVER LOST FAITH'
"We never, never lost faith. We knew they were there, and that they would be rescued," said family member Eduardo Hurtado, as other miners' relatives waved red-white-and-blue Chilean flags and cheered.
The miners' plight has drawn parallels with the story of 16 people who survived more than 72 days in the Andes mountains after a 1972 plane crash. Their story was later made into the Hollywood movie "Alive".
Rescuers plan to send narrow plastic tubes called "doves" down the bore-hole with food, hydration gels and communications equipment.
Deep in the small mine, located near the northern city of Copiapo, there are deposits of water and ventilation shafts that helped the miners to survive.
The mine, however, is unstable, and rescue workers were forced to abandon attempts to dig past the main cave-in and down a ventilation shaft.
The plan is now to dig a new shaft to enable the trapped miners to escape, which will take months. Rescue workers say it could take around 120 days to dig a new tunnel to reach them.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said rescue workers would lower a camera and microphones to communicate with the miners.
Pinera sacked top officials of Chile's mining regulator and vowed a major overhaul of the agency in light of the accident.
Serious mining accidents are rare in Chile, but the government says the San Jose mine, owned by local private company Compania Minera San Esteban Primera, has suffered a series of mishaps and 16 workers were killed in recent years.
(Additional reporting by Alonso Soto and Molly Rosbach; editing by Mohammad Zargham)